And proof that it’s more important than ever.
Credit: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

It's no secret that Instagram has become integral to the restaurant world. Restaurants rely on the platform to attract new customers, both by showcasing their food—which must, of course, be photogenic and well-lit, goodbye dim, romantic dining rooms—and incentivizing diners to come in and get their own 'gram. Beyond creating Instagram-worthy dishes, which is par for the course these days, they're also setting up "Instagram stages," whether that's a table by the window that gets great natural light, or some killer wallpaper for the ultimate bathroom selfie. (Enter grimace emoji here.)

A first-of-its-kind culinary school course on using Instagram to drive business that took place at the International Culinary Center (ICC) on August 30 only drives home the point. The class—presented by a team from Instagram, led by Mike Bronfin, Product Marketing Manager for Instagram Business Platform—walked students through the various ways restaurants should leverage Instagram to drive profits, and included a panel of three leading industry voices, as well as a tutorial on making stories. The panelists were Claire Mosteller from Union Square Restaurant Group (@ushgnyc), who was there speaking on behalf of Tacocina (@heytacocina) and Marta (@martamanhattan); Dani Beckerman from @Jars_By_Dani; Michael Chernow, founder of Seamore's (@seamores) and co-founder of The Meatball Shop (@meatballers).

ICC, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), all offer food photography and styling courses to help students with their 'grams, but this ICC course, which sold out in two hours and whose materials will be available online due to popular demand, was specifically geared toward restaurants using the platform to drive business. What's more, it's the first class that the folks from Instagram have been a part of.

That's because the platform knows how important businesses—and specifically restaurants, a huge vertical for Instagram—are both for consumers and for their own bottom line.

While you've been busy getting sucked in and seduced by the hair-down quality of Instagram stories, which just celebrated its second birthday, business profiles have been skyrocketing. Two-hundred million people visit businesses on Instagram each day, Bronfin says. That's 40 percent of all Instagrammers.

Think you can avoid being part of that statistic if you stick to following your friends and put the blinders on to companies and organizations? Two-thirds of those visits to businesses are from non-followers. So, chances are, you've proactively visited a business, either by following a tag on a friend's post, searching for a location or clicking on a hashtag. You've engaged in what Bronfin calls the "flywheel effect," in which a friend tags a restaurant, which inspires you to go there in person, then snap your own photo, and encourage other people via digital media to act IRL.

So, beyond providing 'gram fodder in the way of dishes designed for the feeds, and environments to suit them, how else can restaurants and food businesses harness this unparalleled tool?

One way is to drive direct action by syncing up with reservation platforms and allowing people to book tables directly through a restaurant's profile. Instagram rolled out this feature, whereby businesses can add an action button to their profile that facilitates direct commerce, in May. The feature also works for delivery.

Another new feature from Instagram that launched at the end of 2017 is the ability to follow hashtags—so restaurants are using popular hashtags (ahem, #howisummer) to attract attention.

As stories become increasingly popular, restaurants are using them as ways to offer behind-the-scenes access into the kitchens, as well as avenues for interacting directly with diners. One in three stories lead to direct messages, Bronfin says. Bigger businesses allow people to swipe up and go directly to a website, but for most businesses, the direct message feature on stories drives significant engagement.

Another stories function that restaurants are increasingly using is the poll tool, whereby they can ask customers how to use a certain ingredient, including them in the process and thereby making them feel even more invested.

And then there are activations you haven't even thought of yet. Leave it to Chernow, who designed Seamore's to be Instagram-friendly before that was even a thing and who thinks about the visual appeal of every dish he develops, to continue to push the envelope in making Instagram work for his brand. Before The Meatball Shop opened its first non-NYC location in D.C. in August, the restaurant orchestrated a scavenger hunt, for which it left clues on its Instagram profile. Participants followed clues to find golden grinders, which, if brought into the shop, earned them free meatballs for a year. It was a totally innovative way to use Instagram to get people in the door, and while it's often difficult to quantify a brand's social presence, they were able to track participation.

Gone are the days when a restaurant didn't have to worry about its lighting, or a chef about the Instagram potential of a dish. Instagram's influence over the restaurant sphere is as real as the multiplication of Instagram-driven "food museums" this year—but you knew all that already. You just didn't know it would become the most popular class in school, and maybe even part of the core curriculum one day.